A Mine of Information

In diary entry 11 we spoke to Mr Moniz from the CELOS Bio-prospecting project. He has a vision for this small country. He thought that if only the Trio Shaman of Kwamalasamutu would divulge their secrets and a cure was found for cancer or AIDS then the whole country could become wealthy as a result. It was a nice idea... but one that does not relate to the real world. Suriname is a poor country surrounded by other poor countries. Hyperinflation, poverty, health problems and all the familiar problems that affect 'underdeveloped' countries are present here. You may wonder why I am beginning my diary with this background information. We are in mining country... and gold mining is a blight that has wreaked havock across the entire Amazonian region leaving a trail of deforestation and mercury water pollution, killing the rivers and ruining the health of the original inhabitants.

All this is known, and there is no need to re-work the familiar story here. Mining is a reality and it is easy to sit back in Europe and America and criticise poorer countries for destroying their environment. But as Granman Gazon himelf said 'people have to eat, but there are good and bad ways of going about things'. We could rant and rage about what we have seen today but there is little point in doing that. It won't change anything, and it does not move the debate forward. What we thought we would try to do was to focus on ways that the impact of mining can be controlled, ways to organise the social and environmental aspects of the process so that the damaging effects can be minimised. Suriname borders Brazil, and in recent years, driven by the need to find new mining locations, Brazillian "Garimpieros" (small-scale miners) have been flooding into Suriname and setting up operations here, At first they were working for the Maroons who own the land. The Maroons themselves have been mining for over a century but the Brazilian know-how helped them work more productively and so there was a mutual benefit. More recently the Garimpieros have been establishing their own unlicensed and unregulated camps and defending them with shotguns. The Surinamese government has neither the will or the resources to even begin to police the situation. It needs all the income it can get and gold means money - inflation-proof money.

The mining camps have a well established culture all of their own and run on a strict set of rules. The 'boss' of the camp is the man who owns the machinery. He gets 50% of the takings and the rest is split between the team of five or six workers that he employs. In cases where the boss is working on land that belongs to someone else it is a long established rule that the land-owner gets 10% of the takings (leaving the rest to be divvied up between the boss and the workers). The only other people in the scenario are the storekeepers - savvy entrepreneurs who sell supplies (especially beer) to the miners for measurements of gold. Where we are here for example, a can of margarine goes for 4 grammes, and a pack of chewing gum for 0.5 of a gramme. Apart from the storekeepers there are the inevitable gaggle of prostitutes who also ply their trade for raw gold. (I do not know the rate!).

So what can we possibly say that is positive about what we have seen today? The area that we are in is part of a mining concession granted to Henk Naarendorp, a self-made man and gold entrepreneur and our host here in Antino. A few years ago he was a consultant to a big Canadian mining company called 'Gold Star'. They have a none-too savoury reputation as they were responsible for a large cyanide spill in Guyana a few years back. To keep up appearances the Surinamese government, not wanting to give the impression that vast tracts of the country were being handed over to foreigners, stipulated a restriction on the size of concessions that it would grant. So Golden Star thought of the idea of working through third parties like Henk Naarendorp. At the time the country was just recovering from the 'Interior War', a rumbling conflict that lies behind so many of the conditions that wee see today in Suriname. Henk was keen to attract foreign investment into the country and also saw Gold Star as a way to make himself a fair bit of money too. Henk too took out an exploration concession on this area, and funded by Gold Star, started researching the feasibility of extracting gold from this area. After initial results were quite positive and a small amount of infrastructure had been established here, there was a slump in the gold-price and Gold Star shelved their project in Henk’s concession. Henk moved in and applied for an exploitation licence here, believing that there would be money to be made owning the rights to a potentially productive area. However he didn't have the capital backing of Gold Star so decided to work it another way.

As I have said, Garimpieros will pay 10% to the owner of the land - or the person who owns the right to exploit that land. In the end it makes sense for them as (often illegal) immigrants, to ensure that they are free from harassment from outside. (Vitally this gives the owner of the land some leverage over the others).

Henk arrived this morning by plane and we took the opportunity to take a flight over the area. We flew over Henk’s concession and over neighbouring ones. There is no getting round the fact that all mining devastates the land. Two motors are used in the process. The alluvial gold deposits lie at the bottom of the gravely layer that sits on a clay base. A section of forest is cleared of trees. One motor blasts a powerful water-jet that cuts deep into the ground. Another motor sucks up the liquified earth and passes it over a sluice-box, lined with 'astro-turf' carpet which catches the heavy sediments (ie gold) in its fibres. After a couple of weeks tonnes of earth have passed over the box and the carpets are rinsed out and mercury (locally "Quick”) is added to the sandy residue. This amalgamates the fine alluvial golden granules. It was quite amazing today to see the end of the process and the gold appearing from the mud and the sand at the bottom of the box.

In all mining trees are uprooted and the area is layed waste. While Henk acknowledges that no mining is totally without damage he has put in place a set of rules on his concession that all the garimpieros are forced to follow. Gio, Henk’s foreman, spends his days riding around the concession on his four wheeler motorbike ("All Terrain Vehicle"(ATV) with a pistol in his holster and a shotgun on his lap. His job is not only to collect Henk’s 10%, but also to ensure that some basic principles are followed to minimise the environmental impact. No more trees are felled than is strictly necessary. Mercury is used but only in the final stages, then a 'retort' must be used to re-claim 95% of the mercury from the gold when it is separated out at the final phase of the process. Henk also stipulates that the mines should run into each other... so that each hole that is gouged out of the earth is filled in by the next one.

Now, I am aware that it may sound like I am letting our host Henk of the hook. Today’s aerial shots don't lie and the environmental impact is real. However there is order to the chaos here. Henk is also putting in place a Malaria control programme which is desperately needed in a area with the highest malarial mortality rate in the whole of South America. His tight control of his land through Gio and his men also reduces banditry and crime .... another serious problem. There are 200 garimpieros working here. It is only when you consider that an estimated 20,000 garimpieros are active in Suriname (mainly in the Marowinje and Brownsberg areas) and they are largely working in a completely uncontrolled and unregulated way that you begin to think again and wonder if working with the garimpieros isn't the way forward. Henk is driven by profit like any other entrepreneur. But he seems to have a sense of responsibility in his work. It was gratifying to see the Mercury produced by the retort with my own eyes at the end of this long day.

If anybody out there has any more information on mining and other possible ways to minimise the damaging effects,or wants to take issue with our representation of what we have seen today then we would welcome comments in the discussion boards in the "Virtual Base Camp" section of our site. One thing is for sure - the problem isn't going to disappear - the people in this part of the world are real people with real needs and bellies to fill just lie you and me.

On the flight with Henk we also flew in Karin Boven,an Anthropologist who has worked extensively with the Wayana people. It is good that people like her should meet Henk. Tomorrow we go to Kwemahakhan further upstream, where we will look at the ways in which mining has effected this tribe who now number only around 1000 souls. They are the people who bare the brunt of the problem and tomorrow is a new day.


Birds Eye View

Blasting for Bullion

The Old Method

Gio - The Sheriff!

The Driving Force

LINKS - Small Scale Mining in Suriname
LINKS - Gold Star, Cyanide Spill
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